You are who you are until … well … you aren’t.
While we all know the Chicago Bulls are better than their 112-103 loss to the Sacramento Kings, the truth of the matter is they weren’t last night. And that’s where the overarching problem lies. Head coach Billy Donovan has harped all season long about playing a full 48 minutes, yet there the Bulls were facing a 20-point deficit against a 13th-seeded team with just 14 regular-season games left to go. Unfortunately, I fear that’s who this team is as we inch closer and closer to the organization’s first playoff appearance since the 2016-17 season, and it’s making me recalibrate my expectations.
• I don’t like to overreact to one loss, but it’s hard not to when that loss comes with less than a month to go in a tight Eastern Conference seeding race. The Bulls had a prime opportunity to flip back into the No. 3 seed last night, gaining ground on a 76ers team that lost to the Nuggets. Instead, they fell back to grasping a mere half-game lead over the Boston Celtics, and they also allowed both the No. 6 seeded Cavaliers and No. 7 seeded Raptors to gain precious ground. No, I still don’t think the Bulls tumble all the way into the Play-In Tournament, but that assumption has also been built on the idea that the Bulls beat teams like the Kings. Soooo.
• As of today, the Bulls currently hold the NBA’s toughest remaining strength of schedule, per Tankathon. We have to look no further than the next four games against the Jazz, Suns, Raptors, and Bucks to understand why. So not only should a true playoff threat be able to naturally take care of business in Sacramento, but especially one with so much on the freakin’ line. The Bulls’ simple failure to do that was disheartening; however, it was the way in which it happened that might force me to lower my expectations moving forward.
• The team played with no sense of urgency in the opening two quarters while the Kings did the exact opposite. Chicago shot a dismal 36.6 percent from the field and walked into the locker room losing the points in the paint battle 28-10. Considering the Kings allow the 2nd-most point the paint per game, it was a mindboggling mark that was only made worse when we saw just how effective the downhill game could be in the second half. Zach LaVine swapped his Camry for a McLauren in the 3rd quarter. He dominated off the dribble in the way we’ve grown accustomed to, forcing the Kings to send him to the free-throw line for 8 attempts (where he made all 8). DeRozan followed suit with five of his eight shots coming at the rim in the 4th quarter. His quick 11 points helped make it only a one-possession game.
• Where was that mentality when the ball tipped off? And where was the defense that held Sacramento to diminishing point totals in the 3rd and 4th quarter? If it can’t show up here for a full 48 minutes, how can we expect it to show up come playoff time? Indeed, I think that’s where my head stands with only a few weeks to go. The Bulls have almost as much talent as anyone around the league, but they don’t have the health, discipline, experience, or cut-throat mentality to be viewed as a legitimate contender. And, hey, that isn’t to say it can’t change over the next 26 days. All it takes is a couple of battle scars and big-time wins to flip a script. I’d say that’s the bitter-sweet thing about the Bulls’ ridiculously tough schedule: While it might break them, it also provides an opportunity to become a lot stronger. The chance to prove themselves isn’t going away, but my belief in their ability to do so is shrinking.
• Bulls fans have seemed to make Nikola Vucevic Enemy No. 1, but they aren’t even in that game without him last night. He was one of the only players to bring the level of intensity needed from the opening tip, scoring 11 points and grabbing 7 rebounds in the first two quarters. The big man battled with Domantas Sabonis in what looked like one of his most physical battles of the season, and his extra 12 points in the third frame behind 5-8 shooting (2-3 from downtown) were pivotal in placing the Bulls back in striking distance.
• As painful as it will be to watch, the Bulls need to dissect the heck out of this film. As we touched on last week, DeRozan catches the 7th-most double-teams per game, according to NBA CourtOptix, and the Kings surely made this a priority last night. He was held to just five shot attempts heading into the half, and his 17 total field goal attempts tied his 5th-fewest of the season. Both he and LaVine do a pretty solid job playmaking out of these situations, but there is no question the Bulls struggled to capitalize at times last night. The offense fell out of sync over long stretches and became borderline chaotic without DeRozan’s calm and collected hands on the basketball. No doubt, the Bulls playoff opponent will try this. The Bulls must be ready when they do.
• I get why Donovan would opt for Dosunmu against the offensively-gifted De’Aaron Fox, but I think he missed the mark by not giving Coby White more run last night. Dosunmu went just 0-5 from downtown, and he appeared to pass up a shot or two due to this cold hand. With the double teams on DeRozan and the Kings’ defense beginning to collapse as LaVine crashed the paint, it felt like White’s services on the perimeter could have provided a greater spark (played 23 minutes).
• At least Alex Caruso was still really fun to watch:
Alex Caruso is a madman.
— Bleacher Nation Bulls (@BN_Bulls) March 15, 2022
• Sign Freeman AND Correa, you coward!
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) March 15, 2022